Friday, March 27, 2009

Who's in charge of Hardware and Software?

This week we had another meeting of our district technology folks. We covered the gamut of topics including planning, support, software and hardware adoption, password management and operating systems. As usual, I am amazed at the variety of perspectives. There is a high level of agreement among the tech support people on our team; whether they support a single school, a number of schools or the entire district. By and large, they support more standardization. We might disagree on the type of standardization but generally they want to have common software and a process for bringing new technology on line. I used to be surprised by how much we have in common but understand that we have common struggles.

Despite the general agreement among the people who manage technology, our users (some of who are building and district administrators) have a different perspective. They are inclined to want less standardization, to let each computer user bring new software and hardware onto our network without approval.

Anyone who is responsible for managing more than 30 computers, appreciates the need for conformity. They know that computers with common applications, operating systems, and preferences are basic to management and survival. They have been bitten by special software, user as computer administrator, special configurations, plugins and hardware. They have sunk hours of their time on problems created by random and uninformed installations. These aren't people who have rigid personalities. They don't necessarily embrace conformity in their other habits of life. Yet when it comes to keeping computer labs and user workstations working and in a productive state, they want to maintain a sense of order.

Those who live in "single userland" haven't a clue about the demands of the computer manager. They focus on the ease of use factor; making things quick in the short run for the single computer user. They want us to give them administrative access to the computer, to install software at will, and change the settings to fit the immediate need.

When these perspectives clash we spin into a circular dive of disagreement. We don't accept each other's experience or arguments. Technicians want control, users want lassei faire.

My compromise is to accept that people will find unique software and hardware and that we need to be prepared to entertain and test their use. Therefore, the people who manage the computers in the building, who are closest to the needs and the consequences should work with teachers and administrators to decide what is best.

At the foundation of all this talk is an important, missing, piece. This ingredient requires time and some deep thinking and this makes it unpopular. The piece? What are you trying to accomplish with your computer? In other words, what are the requirements that you have for hardware and software. Do you need a machine that allows you to do web research, word process, email and make presentations? Do you need to run simulations, graph calculations, monitor your local weather? There is resistance to taking this step and asking these questions. The end result is that we have computers that provide much more than what people need at a much greater cost and computers that fall short of what people need often because they are misplaced or under powered. The over-powered computers often have software that never gets used, even though it would help the teacher/student with a current lesson. The under-powered computer is a mine field of problems. If it is in a "mission-critical" location it will create frustration for user and technician alike when it crashes at some inconvenient time.

Like so many things, computing requires planning - putting the right resource in the right place. As a school district with very limited resources, this requires that make some hard choices. We can't give all the tools to all the people. We can't be as spontaneous as we might want to be. We have to consider the needs of the teacher/student and put the requisite tools in their hands - no more than they need, no less than they need. We can have flexibility. But the flexibility comes in the planning, not in the impulse to buy.